HAPS Momentum at MWC 2022 Signals Increasing Commercial Interest

More Mobile Operators Looking to Understand the Ways HAPS Technologies Enable Connectivity Solutions for Urban, Remote and Underserved Regions

By HAPS Alliance Officer Greg Ewert, Vice President of Strategy & Business Development, Intelsat

For the first time in two years, MWC 2022 in Barcelona was held as an in-person-only event, drawing approximately 61,000 attendees from more than 200 countries. The event was a robust return to normalcy marked by the enthusiastic resumption of face-to-face meetings and the buzz of one of the world’s largest and most vibrant technology trade conferences.

The HAPS ecosystem was well represented at MWC 2022 as HAPS Alliance members – Airbus Defence and Space, Gilat Satellite Networks, TMG, Radisys Corporation, Nokia, Intelsat, Sceye, Liverpool Hope University and more – showcased the telecommunications industry’s increased interest in ensuring the technology is commercially viable. At its heart, HAPS, or High Altitude Platform Station, provides high-speed wireless communications and internet connectivity to people in rural areas where terrestrial cell service is sparse or non-existent. It also provides high-resolution earth observation and high-speed connectivity to connect machines, vehicles and drones, among other applications.

HAPS platforms consist of balloons, dirigibles, or fixed-wing aircraft that serve as de facto cell towers and operate from the stratosphere at an altitude of roughly 20Km. Able to run remotely for months on solar-powered batteries, HAPS platforms have a radius of up to 200Km and support microwave downlinks to earth-bound base stations up to 200Km away. And compared to satellite technologies, HAPS uses the same equipment as land-based cell towers with no need for space-hardened components.

At MWC 2022, the ecosystem focused on the ways HAPS is working to achieve wide-scale commercial success and the need for HAPS to exist in a heterogeneous network of land, sky and space assets supported by innovation in aircraft, telecommunications and antenna technologies. The conference also reinforced the widespread interest in HAPS among mobile network operators (MNOs), device makers and even cell tower and fiber optic infrastructure providers.

That perspective was evident at a GSMA-hosted round table I joined that explored the future of HAPS. The panel featured representatives from American Tower and Cellnex, which are the two largest tower companies in the world. In general, they supported our belief that a disruptive technology like HAPS can help the telecommunications ecosystem find new ways to resolve old problems. And that sentiment is echoing across the MNO C-suite, where leadership is beginning to see HAPS as more integral to their networks, even in dense urban areas where HAPS connectivity solutions could support sporting events or hard-to-reach areas such as communities located off the islands of Japan.

Part of this dawning realization is driven by sheer economics. Without an alternative, MNOs will need to multiply their towers by 10 times as they move from LTE to 5G, and another 10 times in the next decade as they migrate from 5G to 6G. Not to mention the additional capital costs associated with truck rolls, road work and the need to connect the network by bringing in miles of fiber cable.

The future of HAPS was on display in February of this year during the world’s first demonstration of HAPS using aircraft to extend 5G service across an area of 450Km2. The test, performed at The Red Sea Project site on Saudi Arabia’s west coast, was conducted by Stratospheric Platforms Ltd., a U.K. partner of the German telecommunications company and HAPS Alliance member Deutsche Telekom.

HAPS introduces other important considerations, too, beyond cost. It’s a comparatively green technology when you consider how many cell towers one platform can replace in less populated areas. As the world moves closer to widespread adoption of autonomous passenger vehicles and commercial fleets, HAPS also provides a means to magnify coverage areas to avoid the dead spots that are prevalent in today’s 4G and 5G networks. And even in geographies with adequate coverage, HAPS can provide cost-effective, redundant service for first responders in the event of a natural disaster or cyberattack.

Collectively, the telecoms industry is waking up to HAPS as a technology that can help it expand its networks in a non-traditional way and finally close the communications gap between the haves and the have-nots. Having collaborated with the GSMA’s HAPS Working Group, such as on the white paper titled ‘High Altitude Platform Systems: Towers in the Skies Version 2.0’, we’re now in a stronger position than ever to advance the technology from proof of concept to commercial reality.

We encourage all companies interested in the HAPS ecosystem to become HAPS Alliance members. By joining our membership initiatives, including working groups and member-only meetings, you’ll get an opportunity to collaborate with other HAPS Alliance members working on technology components and use cases that are enabling a smarter, sustainable, more equitable world. Join us and learn more by visiting our membership page.